Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Barack Obama: Will He Dick Nixon Us?

Barack Obama has promised some of his supporters to end the United States occupation of Iraq. Slowly, to be sure, but surely. Recently he has been accused of waffling on the issue, but in any case he appears to be substantially different from John McCain on this issue. Voters trapped in the two party fish net who are against the war have nowhere to go. The idea of voting for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney - well, the press is treating her like she does not exist, so the idea cannot even occur to them.

This brings us right back to 1968. For young Obama supporters who skipped over or forgot that period of U.S. history, allow me to recapitulate. We were deep in a war with Vietnam, allied to the government of South Vietnam, which had been set up by the U.S. (and at times rearranged) after the French left in the 1950s. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had kept us out of an active military role in Vietnam until 1960. Liberal darling (but really a Cold Warrior) President John F. Kennedy sent thousands of U.S. military "advisors," many of whom in fact were observed engaging in combat. Then after JFK was assassinated President Lyndon Johnson was worried that he would be accused by John's brother Bobby, and conservative southern Democrats, and the entire Republican Party of losing Vietnam if the communists took over South Vietnam. So he sent in hundreds of thousands of troops, carpet bombed North Vietnam, and became the U.S.'s best known international war criminal after Harry "I dropped the bomb" Truman (also a Democrat).

Lyndon Johnson decided not to run in 1968, he had become so unpopular. His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, was the Democratic Party nominee. Richard Nixon, who had been Dwight David Eisenhower's Vice President, was the Republican Party presidential nominee.

Hubert Humphrey said he was for continuing the war. Richard Nixon said he had a plan to end the war. While there were many other issues in the 1968 election, without a doubt Nixon won because he had a reputation for being fiercely anti-communist, yet made hay on an unpopular war by having a plan for "peace with honor."

Nixon was not just deluding the American people; he was deluding himself. The North Vietnamese were not scared by his threat to use nuclear weapons. So Nixon started negotiating, and started reducing American troop levels. At the same time he tried to brush back the communist advance with ferocious military maneuvers up to and including the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which was a sanctuary for the communists.

The Democrats, and those to the left of the Democrats (a substantial group at the time), were happy to forget Humphrey and Johnson's troop buildup. They hated Nixon with a blinding passion that made rational analysis and action impossible. Ask any 55 to 85 year old Democrat today who was responsible for the Vietnam War, and almost all will blame Richard (Dick) Nixon. By the end of his term in office we were out of Vietnam, but that did not matter. He even made nice with the Chinese Communists, something no Democratic Party president had dared to do, but got no credit for it from Democrats.

Which brings us back to Barack Obama. George W. Bush involved the U.S. in a war against Iraq followed by an occupation. John McCain, though he was not Vice-President, finds himself in the position of Hubert Humphrey in 1968: an advocate for an unpopular policy. There is no reason to think that in practice John McCain will get the troops out of Iraq any slower than Senator Obama. If McCain says the troops are coming out (after he is elected) you know he can take on the Pentagon brass and the golden calf Republicans. Obama, on the other hand, will have to watch his right flank.

Obama has already promised to transfer at least some of the troops in Iraq to the Afghan front, where the war is going badly at the moment. Don't be surprised if he sends some "advisors" to Somalia as well.

If either President Obama, or President McCain, starts withdrawing troops from Iraq, there is the real possibility that there will be a fundamentalist Islamic takeover. I don't care; that would be an internal matter for Iraq; the U.S. has no business there. But both McCain and Obama would be under heavy pressure to recommit.

The most likely scenario at this point is that Barack Obama will become President. I am capable of hope; I hope he is a good President. But I won't be surprised if he just muddles through like most of our past Presidents. I won't even be surprised if he expands the war and is a failure on domestic issues. On the other hand, maybe he'll surprise us like "Tricky Dick," did. China was not an issue in the 1968 campaign. But by getting us out of Vietnam, opening relations with China, and creating the Environmental Protection Agency, in retrospect President Nixon outshines all the Democratic presidents of that era.

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